Nation-state law: for and against

Arab lawmakers protest as the Knesset debates the nation-state bill. Photo: AP Photo/Olivier Fitoussi

SOME claim it’s a historic declaration of Israel’s Jewish identity, others claim it’s racist.

The new nation-state law has come under fire both domestically and internationally, but the government in Jerusalem claims it is a pinnacle of Zionism.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan raged on Tuesday that the law, which emphasises that Israel is the “national home of the Jewish People” and defines what this means, proves that Israel is the world’s most “racist” and “fascist” state.

Artyom Kozhin of the Russian Foreign Ministry claimed that it “greatly complicates” attempts at Israeli–Palestinian peace.

And the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, claimed that it “anchors inherent discrimination against non-Jewish communities”.

The criticism in Israel has been more nuanced, but also vociferous. Yoel Hasson of the Zionist Union called it a “document of a sick person … an insecure person”.

Saleh Saad, an Arab politician who also represents Zionist Union, called the law “racist”, and claimed that his fellow Knesset members didn’t learn the lesson of the Nuremberg Laws.

Meanwhile, the government said that the law is innocuous and that it represents a long-overdue statement of what it means for Israel to be Jewish.

“This is a historic and defining moment in Israel’s history – a historic and significant law,” said Tourism Minister Yariv Levin.

Amir Ohana, who represents Likud alongside Levin, declared, “This moment will be remembered in the history of the Jewish nation.

“We are laying down one of the cornerstones of our existence. After 2,000 years of exile, we have a home.”

Champions of the law say that it is an anathema that Israel has more than a dozen “basic laws”, and that they deal with human rights and democracy, but until now it didn’t have such a law defining what it means to be a “Jewish state”.

They say there is little new in the law, but it is important to consolidate aspects of the state’s Jewish identity and give it the “basic law” status, which is the closest Israel has to a constitution.

But others say that it is irresponsible to pass a law that defines what it means to have a Jewish state without making sure that it stresses that this does not harm the rights of non-Jews living there.

Many critics said that the main problem wasn’t what it included, but what it omitted.

It is “a law that has no equality, no mention at all of the fact that we are a Jewish and democratic state,” complained Yael German of Yesh Atid.

Yedidia Stern, vice-president of the Israel Democracy Institute, told The AJN that this is his main concern.

“This is the most important part to me – the lack of the word democracy, the lack of the word equality, the lack of the commitment to keep values of the Declaration of Independence is not there.”

As well as the tensions over Arab rights, there is anger from some Diaspora groups.

The law says that Israel “shall act within the Diaspora to strengthen the affinity between the state and members of the Jewish people,” but makes no commitment to strengthen Israel’s ties with the Diaspora.

This stems from the pressure of ultra-Orthodox leaders, who think such a clause could end up giving Reform and Conservative Judaism more rights in Israel.

Jonathan Greenblatt and Carole Nuriel, leaders of the Anti-Defamation League, claimed that the legislation “raises significant questions about the government’s long-term commitment to its pluralistic identity and democratic nature”.

In summary, the law emphasises Jewish connections to the historical land, and says that the State of Israel constitutes Jewish “national self-determination”.

It defines the language, symbols, calendar and rest days of the state as tied to Jewish heritage, and sets memorial days. It states that Jerusalem, “complete and united”, is the capital.

The more controversial elements deal with Arabic and residential areas.

The law downgrades Arabic, by stripping it of its status as an official language. Instead, Arabic now “has a special status in the state”.

Despite the downgrade Avi Dichter, who proposed the law, insisted, “This Basic Law does not harm the Arabic language or any minority – that’s fake news.”

Arabic, he insisted, will still be respected, but “Israel is not a bilingual country” and the law should reflect this.

Joel Golovensky, founder and president of the Institute for Zionist Strategies think tank which helped with an earlier draft of the legislation, also defended the change, telling The AJN that “de facto” Arabic was not treated as an official language and the government has matched the law to this reality “rather than just sweeping it under the rug”.

Stern disagrees. He believes that there was no benefit or status boost for Hebrew, but just an insult for Arabs.

“I believe that this is the height of stupidity because you gain nothing by humiliating 20 per cent of the citizens by telling them their language is downgraded,” he said. “I don’t see any benefit.”

The other main section angering Arabs is about housing projects. An earlier draft of the bill set out to allow Jewish-only or Arab-only neighbourhoods.

This was changed after widespread outcry, including from Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin.

The bill that was passed says that the state “views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its estab- lishment and consolidation.”

Arabs say that the state should be equally committed to everybody’s housing needs, and see this as discriminatory.

But Golovensky argued that getting Jewish people settled in Israel was always a value of Zionism and he sees this section as “entirely appropriate”.

While there has been alarm among some who think this section will be used to argue in court that it is allowed to discriminate against Arabs and turn them away from housing projects, Stern thinks this is farfetched.

“On the face of it, it’s only symbolic,” he said. However, he thinks it could possibly be used to defend allocating more funding to residential areas that are mostly Jewish, which could prove controversial.

As the debate over the law continues, both sides are saying that the other has gone too far.

Tourism Minister Levin argued that it championed “basic values of the Zionist movement”, and that Zionist Union MKs betrayed the values by voting against it.

Meanwhile opposition legislator Elazar Stern of Yesh Atid said that the government has overstepped the line.

“Nationalism is based on love,” he said. “Extreme nationalism is rooted in hate.”

NATHAN JEFFAY